Wednesday, September 26, 2012

About 1000 female Nigerian pilgrims now in detention in Saudi Arabia

About 1000 female Nigerian pilgrims are still detained by Saudi authorities even as the two countries are still involved in "high level diplomatic talks" to resolve the impasse, Daily Trust learnt last night.

However, high level sources hinted last night that the federal government is trying to sort out the issue through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, even as the House of Representatives resolved yesterday to probe the issue.

"A letter signed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs has already been delivered to the Saudi authorities over the issue. We don't know whether they will accept it," the source who is involved with the issue told Daily Trust last night.

Investigations revealed that apart from the initial 400 pilgrims who arrived at the holy land on board flight 17 last Sunday, 600 additional female pilgrims on flights 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22, from Katsina, Kano and Zamfara states were also detained at the airport on arrival.

The female pilgrims were detained on arrival when they couldn't produce individual maharram, that is, the approved male companion accompanying them on the trip, usually a husband, father or brother, demanded by the Saudis.

But the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON)'s Commissioner of Operations, Alhaji Muhammad Abdullahi Mukhtar told our reporter yesterday that the it is not true that the pilgrims couldn't produce muharram. He said the State Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Boards (SMPWB) "qualify and identify as muharram of female pilgrims. And that has been the case for so many decades."

He said that the situation is so confusing that "the Saudis randomly select flights to screen and detain."

"All the 10 flights that landed in Medina were allowed into the country without any incidence. Also, flights 23, 24 and 25 were not touched at all," he said.

Mukhtar wondered why only Nigerian pilgrims were selected for this treatment by the Saudi authorities. "In fact, there is no such issue in the memorandum of understanding signed between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia," he said.

He said that it was not true that the first two Max air flights conveying Sokoto and Jigawa pilgrims on Sunday "were intercepted because only women were aboard."

"Look at the manifest, all our flights carry both men and women," he said.

Another top official said that the Saudis' action is uncalled for because the fear of pilgrims refusing to come back home is no longer tenable.

"Since the introduction of e-passport by NAHCON adequately addressed the cases of pilgrims staying back in the holy land. In 2011, only 20 pilgrims absconded.

When did you see Saudi plane landing in Nigeria with deportees? The situation has been drastically addressed," he said.

Reports indicate also that the pilgrims are being detained in deplorable condition. One of the detained pilgrims, Bilkisu Nasidi, who spoke to the BBC Focus on Africa programme on Monday, said that the women were being held in "terrible condition."

She said there were about 400 of them (as at Monday) and they were being held in very unsuitable circumstance. She said they had been sleeping on the floor for three days, and an average of 200 women share four toilets.

She denied that all of them were without Maharram or guardian and that some of such guardians have opted not to leave the airport in order to give them some comfort.

"If they don't want us to go into Saudi Arabia let them take us home, we are tired," Bilkisu Nasidi said.

The Nigerian Consul in Jeddah, Ambassador Abdullahi Umar had told BBC Hausa Service on Monday that the Nigerian officials had been providing food and toiletries for the detained pilgrims, adding that a formal letter had been delivered to the Saudis and the issue was being taken up with the Governor of Makkah region, who would decide on the matter.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives yesterday commenced an investigation into the circumstance leading to the detention of the women whose number has now risen to about 1000 by the Saudi Arabian authorities in Jeddah.

Adopting a motion on matter of urgent national importance sponsored by Deputy Minority Leader Rep. Suleiman Kawu Sumaila (ANPP, Kano), the House mandated its Committee on Foreign Affairs to interface with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and report back today.

In his motion, Sumaila expressed shock that the affected pilgrims were people who applied for Saudi Arabian visas, and were approved by its embassy without such rules made known to them.

He said that the action of the Saudi authorities negated the long standing understanding between Nigeria and Saudi Arabia on Hajj performance.

Also, Rep. Nnenna Elendu-Ukeje (PDP,Abia) who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said her committee was interfacing with officials of the foreign ministry to secure pilgrims release.

However, Rep. Alhassan Ado Doguwa (PDP, Kano) blamed the Nigerian ambassador to Saudi Arabia for treating the issue with laxity by claiming that "he is on top of the situation" whereas "it is the situation that is on top of him."

Meanwhile a Saudi embassy official in Abuja told Daily Trust in confidence last night that officials of the two countries were making diplomatic efforts to sort out the matter and they will address the press when the matter is settled.

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